Until 2017, Fourth Bluff Park in Downtown Memphis hosted a Confederate monument. After the removal of the statue's last remnants, as over 30 trees were planted and connective pathways were installed, the space began to transform. That transformation has only been gaining steam, as evidenced by "The Peace Project," a new sound installation produced with Memphis River Parks Partnership with actor, producer, and Deep Water Media CEO Bertram Williams and genre-bending songwriter and performer Talibah Safiya.
Readers may recognize Williams as Woddy from the Katori Hall-helmed drama P-Valley. He's a native Memphian with experience working with community development, arts, and nonprofits. "I've produced, with my team, several concerts and tours," Williams says. "I'm turning a corner in this exploration of sound healing. I say now that I'm a producer and I am dead set on exploring sounds and experiences that help people feel better."
- Bertram Williams
Williams' partner, Safiya, is a Memphis-born singer, songwriter, and performer. "The Peace Project" is far from her first collaboration with Williams, though it may be their most ambitious work to date. "Last year, we did a 10-city tour," she says. "This partnership with Memphis River Parks is a continuation of that work we started last year."
The work of the most recent project was no small task. It required partnerships and communications across mediums and between different organizations. The work itself is a microcosm of what Williams and Safiya want the park to be — a meeting place for Memphians from all walks of life. "We're told about the dark stories of our past and our city's history of racism," Safiya says. "We haven't been given very much instruction on how to move forward, what it would look like to get healthier as a city. So the opportunity to have some form of guidance to be in the park that once had a Confederate statue, this is laying the foundation of what we expect to be for the future of Memphis. It's really beautiful to be a part of."
Safiya and a team of musicians recorded new music for the project at Memphis Magnetic Recording Co. with Scott McEwan. "I was able to sit in on some of the recording sessions," Williams says, "watching her guide this group of musicians, some of whom had never worked together, to tap into a specific energy, one that is aligned with healing. Listening to the final product, I find myself feeling all the feelings but also nodding my head 'cause it's good freakin' music."
Williams explains that Safiya maestroed an energy-guiding session with the musicians before they began recording. "We wrote some new 'I Ams' and 'We Ares' to create an experience of inspiration in the park," Safiya remembers. "We also collaborated with some other writers in the city — some poets and storytellers — and made new content for this project."
The team is trying to strike a balance between the sense of bliss music can convey and a healing force for introspection. "We've been joking throughout the process that we're putting the medicine in the Kool-Aid," Williams laughs. He explains that accessibility is important. Hence the public park setting.
"We spent a lot of time [in the park], even before the project," Williams continues. "We know that space is frequented by our unhoused population. In this endeavor, too, we've been thinking about how to create something that would be a support to them."
The speakers installed for "The Peace Project" are permanent additions to the park. They expect the individual recorded programs to have roughly three-month-long "seasons," then to be cycled out, hopefully with new music from Safiya as well as new submissions from other local artists. "We imagine this being like a living organism," Williams says.
"We need, now more than ever, to be able to gather, and to be able to do it safely. So if we can add an additional layer of love and healing, I think we're on the right track."